A Jaded Gamer: Searching for Wonder in Games

A few days ago my fiancée discovered Pokemon Ruby. By discovered, I mean she was looking for a Pokemon game to play and was browsing through the list of games I had. She picked Ruby based on the name alone, no previous understanding of the differences between the several iterations. Last night she told me about a confusing matter in Pokemon. She had used a move against another Pokemon and the hit registered as “a critical hit” and also “the move wasn’t very effective.” She explained that she didn’t understand how a move could critically hit, bringing the Pokemon to just a sliver of a health bar from death, and not have been effective. Upon hearing this I started to grin only for it to be replaced with a face full of melancholy. It was this instance that I realized that games aren’t fantastical to me anymore. The mystery of games is gone for me. I’ve recently begun to avoid reviews due to their nature of providing minor spoilers but simply knowing a game’s genre or developer is enough of a spoiler to remove any sense of wonder from the core mechanics. FPS games all focus on headshots for extra damage, RPG stats/attributes are universally identical, and RTS include resource management and outpacing the enemy in upgrades and army size. I approach new titles with a systemic idea, a plan already formulated before installation even occurs. More often than not instead of adapting my play style to the game I’m playing, I bend the game to my play style.

I began to think about the advancements in mechanics in the last decade. The first person shooter has really only seen a couple of revolutionary mechanics. 1992, Wolfenstein 3D popularized the FPS genre by taking cues from Battlezone and western RPGs, such as Ultima, and making the combat faster with smoother graphics. 1992-1996, several games attempted to introduce y-axis camera control leading up to Quake, which is often times cited as the shifting point between arrow keys to WASD+mouse as the default control mapping. Quake also made internet multiplayer easy to get into with QuakeWorld. 2003, Call of Duty brings iron sights into the mainstream and thousands of lackluster shooters follow suit. Seriously, that’s about it. Modern Warfare popularized an XP/Leveling system in multiplayer shooters but all that did was force the player to grind to play with all of the weapons where as previous titles had them unlocked from the beginning. We’ve seen time control, weapon count reductions, shields, recharging health, dual wield, ammo types, scopes, hit scan weapons, plasma guns, cover systems, and scripted events but nothing has really added to the genre the same way mouse look did. Nothing really influenced the industry the way that iron sights did, the way it suddenly appeared in every shooter post-Call of Duty.

I wish I could say this trend existed only inside the FPS, I really do. But most genres haven’t evolved much over the last two decades either. The platformer’s two biggest advancements came in 1996 and 1997. Mario 64 brought the platformer into 3D properly and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night solidified RPG-lite stats and equipment into the platformer’s arsenal. RTS, well, aside from eschewing resource collection in Relic’s Company of Heroes series, all changes have been quite minimal. Though, the lack of RTS games could be to blame for this as well. Simulation games have probably been the most stagnant as the mechanics are firmly rooted in reality. Racing, sports, and flying airplanes can’t really experience too much of a mechanical overhaul without becoming something they aren’t. NFS Underground 2 introduced an open-world mechanic which paved the road for Burnout Paradise but that’s about it.

This is why I’m not surprised with gaming anymore, genres aren’t evolving fast enough. And really, I don’t think they can. Most of the big jumps in genres have been more due to hardware than ideas within the software. The introduction into the third dimension and real 3D game engines, dual analog controllers, 3D surround output, peripherals. These are what have pushed our engines forward. Not software in a vacuum, but software for new hardware. And it all leads up to my disappointment with “next-gen”. There isn’t any new hardware ideas to push game mechanics forward right now. The controller is pretty much “perfected”. I mean, Sony has used the same design for 4 systems now and the Xbox, while only have 3 similar iterations, borrowed many ideas from the Dreamcast layout. We already made the last dimensional shift and 3D displays pretty much failed last generation. Graphical fidelity is the only idea that can be pushed this time around, leading to the same games from last generation with a graphical make over.

On the other hand, I recently finished Transistor and was lost in the mystery of the game. The environments, the lack of NPCs, the naming mechanics of abilities, the seemingly limitless possibilities for skills, and the strange dichotomy of both turn based and real-time combat. This was the first time since, I can’t even remember, that a game has felt infinite to me. Even the story has me mystified as I attempt to uncover every minute detail about the game in a futile trial to understand what happened. I’ve finished it twice and don’t feel like I’m any closer to unlocking its secrets than I was when I first booted it up. I relish this feeling and I hunt for it in games. It is far superior and more powerful than any power fantasy I have experienced. It brings me back to my infantile stages of gaming, where each game had something interesting about it, something to explore.

I explained to my fiancée about the Pokemon elemental typing chart and how elements get damage coefficients based on what element the receiving Pokemon is. I also explain about critical hits in RPGs and how they are basically extra damage based off of a die roll. I told her how these two events worked independent of each other. She shrugged her shoulders and continued playing, collecting the Pokemon she thought looked cool or she had seen in other media. I look at her team and see weak move pools, low IV numbers, poor EV training, and team-wide elemental weaknesses. She sees Pokemon she cares about, animals to share a journey with. I envy the wonder she finds in games but I will continue to chase that feeling down, jumping between lackluster titles and derivative rehashes to find that gem in the rough.

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